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The Fat and the Thin

Florent had just begun to study law in Paris when his mother died. She lived at Le
Vigan, in the department of the Gard, and had taken for her second husband one
Quenu, a native of Yvetot in Normandy, whom some sub-prefect had transplanted to the
south and then forgotten there. He had remained in employment at the sub-prefecture,
finding the country charming, the wine good, and the women very amiable. Three years
after his marriage he had been carried off by a bad attack of indigestion, leaving as sole
legacy to his wife a sturdy boy who resembled him. It was only with very great difficulty
that the widow could pay the college fees of Florent, her elder son, the issue of her first
marriage. He was a very gentle youth, devoted to his studies, and constantly won the
chief prizes at school. It was upon him that his mother lavished all her affection and
based all her hopes. Perhaps, in bestowing so much love on this slim pale youth, she
was giving evidence of her preference for her first husband, a tender-hearted, caressing
Provencal, who had loved her devotedly. Quenu, whose good humour and amiability
had at first attracted her, had perhaps displayed too much self-satisfaction, and shown
too plainly that he looked upon himself as the main source of happiness. At all events
she formed the opinion that her younger son—and in southern families younger sons
are still often sacrificed—would never do any good; so she contented herself with
sending him to a school kept by a neighbouring old maid, where the lad learned nothing
but how to idle his time away. The two brothers grew up far apart from each other, as
though they were strangers.
When Florent arrived at Le Vigan his mother was already buried. She had insisted upon
having her illness concealed from him till the very last moment, for fear of disturbing his
studies. Thus he found little Quenu, who was then twelve years old, sitting and sobbing
alone on a table in the middle of the kitchen. A furniture dealer, a neighbour, gave him
particulars of his mother's last hours. She had reached the end of her resources, had
killed herself by the hard work which she had undertaken to earn sufficient money that
her elder son might continue his legal studies. To her modest trade in ribbons, the
profits of which were but small, she had been obliged to add other occupations, which
kept her up very late at night. Her one idea of seeing Florent established as an
advocate, holding a good position in the town, had gradually caused her to become
hard and miserly, without pity for either herself or others. Little Quenu was allowed to
wander about in ragged breeches, and in blouses from which the sleeves were falling
away. He never dared to serve himself at table, but waited till he received his allowance
of bread from his mother's hands. She gave herself equally thin slices, and it was to the
effects of this regimen that she had succumbed, in deep despair at having failed to
accomplish her self-allotted task.